A dramatic and memorable way to travel from the Sea of Japan coast across the Alps to Nagano-ken or vice versa, using a combination of buses, trains, funicular and cable cars, is to follow the Tateyama–Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート; w http://www.alpen-route.com). The 90km route is only open from mid-April to mid-November, depending on the snow, and is at its busiest between August and October, when on certain sections you may have to wait a while for a seat or a spot on the cable car (numbered tickets are issued for order of boarding). Delays apart, it takes about six hours to traverse the roof of Japan; the spectacular views fully justify the ¥10,560 one-way ticket. Start early so you have some time to wander around along the way.
Starting from Toyama, take the Toyama Chihō Tetsudō line to the village of Tateyama (立山) at the base of Mount Tateyama (45min; ¥1170), one of the most sacred mountains in Japan after Mount Fuji and Mount Hakusan. Board the Tateyama Cable Railway for the seven-minute journey (¥700) up to the small resort of Bijo-daira (美女平), meaning “beautiful lady plateau”. One of the best parts of the journey follows, taking the Tateyama Kōgen bus (55min; ¥1660) up the twisting alpine road, which early in the season is still piled high on either side with snow, to the terminal at Murodō (室堂). Only five minutes north of the bus terminal is the Mikuriga-ike, an alpine lake in a 15m-deep volcanic crater and, twenty minutes’ walk further on, Jigokudani (Hell Valley), an area of boiling hot springs. There are also several longer hikes that you can do around Murodō, which is the best place to end your journey along the Alpine Route, if you’re short of time or money. There are several places to stay in Murodō: try Tateyama Murodō Sansō (立山室堂山荘; t 076/465-5763; ¥10,001−15,000), also a good place to head for lunch if you want to avoid the crowds at the Hotel Tateyama (t 076/465-3333, w http://www.alpen-route.co.jp/h-tateyama; ¥30,001−40,000) at the head of the Tateyama tunnel.
The next section of the journey – a ten-minute bus ride to Daikanbō (大観峰) along a tunnel cut through Mount Tateyama – is the most expensive (¥2100). The view from Daikanbō across the mountains is spectacular, and you’ll be able to admire it further as you take the Tateyama Ropeway cable car (¥1260) down to the Kurobe Cable Railway (¥840) for a five-minute journey to the edge of the Kurobe-ko lake formed by the enormous Kurobe dam (黒部ダム; w http://www.kurobe-dam.com). Blocking one of Japan’s deepest gorges, the dam is a highlight of the trip, and there are also boat trips across the lake (30min; ¥930) and some excellent hiking. An easy thirty-minute walk along the lake to the south gets you to a campsite, and if you have gear and the Tateyama topographical map – available in any major bookstore – you could continue for days along some of Japan’s most spectacular hiking trails.
From the cable railway you’ll have to walk 800m across the dam to catch the trolley bus (¥1260) for a sixteen-minute journey through tunnels under Harinoki-dake to the village of Ōgisawa (扇沢), across in Nagano-ken. Here you’ll transfer to a bus (40min; ¥1330) down to the station at Shinano-Ōmachi (信濃大町), where you can catch trains to Matsumoto or Hakuba. You can buy a ticket covering the whole trip at either end (¥10,560).